I was reading a Bob Lefsetz post about a letter written to him from famed producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Kiss, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd). READ THIS LETTER right now, it’s quick. In this letter Bob was nostalgic of the old music business and basically excoriating most of the new artists. While I can completely see Bob Ezrin’s point, I categorically disagree that the good music is gone for good.
At least it is in the mainstream marketplace at the moment.
The integrity of music is cyclical like everything else.
We are in the middle of a rebirth.
It’s never been a better time for artists worldwide.
Artists have NEVER experienced such few roadblocks standing between their work and an audience.
At least not from outside forces anyway, artists still excel at creating their own roadblocks.
Every artist has all the power, access, and affordable tools necessary to make their masterpiece and market it to the world.
Why are major players like Bob Ezrin so jaded about the new music business?
Because it’s not like the old music business.
It’s changed and everybody hates change.
Let’s look at the old industry for a second, shall we?
In the old music industry making records was quite expensive. A professional project required an artist to:
- Pay for major recording studio access (lockout fees $1,500-$2,500 per day)
- Pay for outboard gear not onboard the recording console ($500-$2500 day)
- Pay for an experienced engineer ($120/hour in 2015 dollars)
- Pay for a producer ($25k/song + 5 points)
- Pay for 10-20 reels of 2” tape ($3,000 – $6,000 depending on the project)
- Pay for 10 (ish) reels of ½” tape to record stereo mixes ($1,500)
- Pay for mastering which would run $600 – $1,200 per song
It becomes really easy to rack up $200,000 or more even on a project with a good band that can be recorded and mixed in a couple weeks ala Van Halen or The Black Crowes let alone a “tinkering artist” who needs time to create the masterpiece.
Then there’s the marketing costs…
- $250k – $500k per song for radio promo (payola never died folks, it just got renamed and restructured to legally protect the broadcast licenses and cash flow, you know, like a side-street-shell-game)
- Tour support – The bus, bus drivers, roadies, gas, hotels, airfare, meals, and booze costs a boatload.
- Radio Tour – Again, gas, hotels, airfare, meals, etc.
Then there was legal fees, manufacturing fees, and shipping costs for distribution, etc.
So the old music business required $1.5 million – $2.5 million dollars to create, manufacture, distribute, and promote the first record on a major label.
2 words: COST PROHIBITIVE.
Even an independent label with 20% of the major label budget meant exorbitant cash requirements that were far too great for any unsigned artists to afford alone.
So serious capital was required to take the risk of developing an artist that had a 90% chance of failure in the major label system during the “hey day” of the old music business.
Taking risks means there was a carefully guarded selection process loaded with many filters (AKA roadblocks).
It used to be hard to get in the door for a reason.
Back in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s the major labels were independents created by visionaries which is fancy talk for diehard musicians and music aficionados that had a business sense and some discretionary cash flow.
These visionaries made relationships with artists and other business people to foster the creation of compelling art, market it, and ultimately profit from it.
It all started with passion.
Passion from the artists and the visionaries.
For what it’s worth to all you frustrated indie artists, these great music men were not devoid of mistakes with their marketing. Ahmet Ertegun’s first 22 singles were bombs so you really should stop lamenting the first couple marketing speed bumps that make you feel like a failure and start concentrating on the future wins.
There is no failure, you either win or you learn.
Then, after their company success morphed them into brand names that were associated with important, captivating music and significant artist brand names, they were purchased by big, publicly traded companies.
Publicly traded companies have to make a profit. They live by the quarterly report which means numbers become the focus instead of music.
For decades we have promoted music via terrestrial radio. It makes sense that people think terrestrial radio is about music because that’s where we were all exposed to our favorite artists growing up, right?
Sadly, terrestrial radio doesn’t care about the music either. Hell, it used to showcase dramatic and comedic programs in the 40’s, then TV was invented and the new medium stole the content so music was the next plausible programming solution.
Terrestrial radio cares about selling ads. They are ad salesmen, plain and simple.
So when you combine a publicly traded company that lives & dies by the numbers on a quarterly report with a group of ad salesmen, nobody cares about the music anymore.
When nobody cares about the music, the music becomes sterile; it becomes an afterthought. The music doesn’t mean anything to anyone in a position of power other than product data or sales quotas.
To promote it you need to make the ad salesmen happy.
The best way to make the ad salesmen happy is to ensure it sounds and looks like what is already being successfully promoted because, today, that’s selling their ads.
It’s clear what happened to the music and why.
This is how we “lost us” as Bob Ezrin so eloquently put it.
He’s right, ya know.
Bob was right on time with his analysis but it is definitely from a mainstream perspective. It’s not necessarily accurate, even beyond Ezrin’s disclaimer regarding the inevitable “exceptions to the rule”. In my humble opinion, it’s also a bit cynical and short sighted.
But I get it, I understand his frustration.
You see, there is a perfect storm of sorts going on right now in the music business.
That means everyone can make records. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, but everyone can make records nonetheless.
And record they do. Rather, they completely manufacture performances because they can. In this instance we have the “artists” contributing to the degradation of the art.
This is due to a DIY environment bereft of mentors and any record making experience (don’t be naïve, recording music and making records are 2 completely different processes), mixed with the natural human nature to follow the path of least resistance.
Back in the day you had to keep singing or playing until you nailed the performance, no fixes. There was a mentor/elder you respected there to tell you, “Do it again”. Now, we’re all alone and in a hurry to just get it done because we want to bask in our own glory and awesome artistry.
Or worse, we want to get the product out ASAFP.
It’s also about 15 minutes of fame instead of real connecting for so many of today’s misguided artists.
I am predicting that in the future, 15 minutes of fame will become easy and therefore sterile like the music of today.
This need for fame will become blasé and boring.
Artists will begin to be noticed for excellence in their artistic works and performances.
This will create followers who strive to be excellent for the purposes of being noticed (they’re all still artists right?)
Audiences will respond to artists who are different and meaningful as long as they’re properly exposed to them.
I submit to you the real artists, the important artists, they’re out there, man.
There are tons of artists that are making music with meaning, Bob Ezrin. There are artists that are fighting for their freedom, from oppression, from abuse, from fear, from their past, from society, from the rat-race, and from this business.
You just haven’t heard about them yet because the marketing machine is broken, or getting an overhaul at the very least.
The more mundane and homogenized the music sounds, the more the important artists stick out like a sore thumb with even a modicum of marketing expertise.
Consumers do respond to real performances, and real artists even if they can’t articulate why.
That will never change.
These important artists have more access than ever before to make, manufacture, and promote their art.
They have an incredible amount of direct access to an easily targeted marketplace and it’s inexpensive to reach.
Like I said, it’s a rebirth.
With all this accessibility, the storytellers get to define their tribe, connect, and tell their story free from corporate intervention.
The real artists get to emote their truth and the market will respond just like it always has because the market can and will relate to the real artists; “He’s singing about me. She’s telling my story.”
It’s back to being about the music Bob Ezrin.
Because we can.
It’s time for the artists to learn that they need to define and connect with their audience to bring their work to the world.
Artists need to learn to market these great works and prove Bob Ezrin wrong.
He may be a genius but He’s also old and crusty so don’t pay any attention to him.
Keep working y’all.
10 years from now the music will be better.
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